Work Means Liberity!

Reading Mark Kingwell’s essay, “The Language of Work,” in last month’s Harper’s Magazine is an opportunity to break from the complexities of our current global crisis and return to a more simple argument. The purpose of his essay is to get at the essence of work, what it is, and why we should resist it.

Resist work?! That sounds a bit radical, even for us Marxists who are still preoccupied with questions of labor, production, and reproduction.

But Kingwell says forget exploitation and alienation; let’s even forget capitalism (well, for a minute). Let’s question work and its invisible pervasiveness.

“The values of work are still dominant in far too much of life,” Kingwell writes, “indeed, these values have exercised their own kind of linguistic genius, creating a host of phrases, terms, and labels that bolster, rather than challenge, the dominance of work,”(19).”

The question for Kingwell is not how to achieve labor peace but why and how such a destructive concept of labor has managed to prevail under socialism, democracy, fascism, and every other political ideology. This argument makes sense, maybe even more than most the Neo-Marxists I spend my time reading. To better illustrate his point, Kingwell revisits Bertrand Russell’s brilliantly straightforward essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” a cohesive argument against the development of modern work.

“From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family…” Now however, “Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

For Russell, modern society is marked by the fact that while new technologies are creating efficiencies that should let us work less, most of us are working more. Furthermore: “It seems more likely that they will find continually fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity.”

Although Russell’s essay was written in 1932, it doesn’t take rocket science to see the contemporary validity of such a claim. Smaller computers that commute more faster, Wi-Fi on airplanes, overnight shipping…these are all schemes of productivity that allow us to overlook the disturbing reality that it is virtually impossible to be idle.

“Work hard, fly right,”(Continental); “Empowering People,”(Acer); “Long Live Dreams,”(American Express); “Choose Freedom”(Toshiba); “It’s Everywhere You Want to Be,”(Visa), all of these reflect the great achievement of modern work culture and it’s ability to disguise its essential nature.  While this is all quite clever, as Kingwell illustrates, there is a very dark reality behind such ideology.

“The grim ironists of the Third Reich were exceptionally forthright when they fixed the maxim Arbeit macht frei—Work Shall Make You Free—over the gates at Dachau and Aushwitze,”(19).

Reading this, I thought immediately of a quote from Rene Clair’s A Nous La Liberte, a hilarious but dead on representation of the irony of work as embodied in early 20th century capitalist society.

“Work is mandatory, because work means liberty” says one factory worker to Emile, an ex-convict recently freed from prison. Released in 1931, A Nous shares many similarities with Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness,” the most obvious being the resistance to work. The film opens with men seated along a conveyor belt assembling wooden toy horses. As the camera zooms out, we realize we’re not in a factory, but a prison. We hear:

Liberty is a man’s dues

He enjoys love and skies of blue

But then there are some

Who no worse crimes have done

It’s the sad story we tell

From a prison cell

The story begins here, with a friendship between two inmates, Emile and Louis. One evening, both attempt to escape but the plan is botched. As the prison guards run after the two escapees, Emile tosses the rope to Louis so that he may climb over the last prison wall and onto freedom. Using a combination of wit and resourcefulness, Louis  begins manufacturing phonographs.

Within a short period of time, Louis becomes the world’s largest phonograph manufacturer. He is now part of the industrial elite, participating in the idleness characteristic of the bourgeoisie: dinner parties, drinking, and pointless banter.

Louis’s success is juxtaposed as we cut back to Emile. Finally freed from prison, he heads into a field and falls asleep, only to be woken up by an officer. “Not at work? Don’t you know that….” In a classic move, Clair makes explicit the paradox of modern society by taking us out of the plot and into the French classroom where a professor, writing on the chalkboard, announces to his pupils: “Work is mandatory. Because work means liberty.” The pupils, hunched over at their desks, diligently write and repeat, “Work is mandatory because work means liberty.”We flash forward to the factory workers, hunched over the conveyor belt of gramophones and back to Emile who is walking toward the large, industrial complex by the force of the two officers.

Emile joins the ranks of men waiting to be employed by Louis’s factory. The men march into a room, sit down, and follow the directions of a recorded voice:

Walk in formation

Will give you a job of worth

You who seek an occupation

State your name and date of birth

Leave fingerprint identification

About-face in formation

Emile’s inability to adapt to the pace and efficiency of modern work quickly gets him into trouble. Exasperated with Emile, the factory supervisors bring him to Louis. While Louis doesn’t initially recognize his old friend, Emile’s endearing incomprehension of modern work strikes Louis, who suddenly recognizes what happens to the human spirit when it succumbs to “our character as social animals forever competing for relative advantage,”(Kingwell, 20).

Louis quickly returns to his old, playful demeanor, much to the disgust of his class-hungry girlfriend. She scolds Louis, calling his behavior “inexcusable” after he and Emile ruin a dinner party. His reply is simple: “What do you want? Money, here…you bore me!”

Louis understands that this boredom, while an offshoot of idleness, is not the kind Russell propounds but the kind he is weary of: namely the repetitious passivity of material comfort, the passivity that stupefies the senses and is no more enjoyable than the mechanical repetition associated with the 10-hour factory workday.

A series of events unfold and Louis is forced to abandon the factory, which has recently undergone a new technological marvel. Louis explains to the supervisors and workers:

“In our new plant, men will have no other task other than supervising the machines. The machines will do all the work. They will manufacture our phonographs. ‘Organization and progress,’ that is our motto.’” While that is certainly a motto of modern capitalism, Clair gives it a twist. The speech continues: “While the machine has proven that it can replace the hand of men, it cannot replace his brain.”

Because the factory can do the work of humans, humans are free to be idle. In the final scene we see the workers dancing together at a picnic along the water. Emile and Louis walk down the road, without a penny in their pockets.

When all things around us operate

Friends, let us enjoy our idleness

Beneath sunny skies, what a sweet life

To laze about and sing like this

Let’s indulge in this infinite elation

We can only imagine that Russell’s prophecy of idleness come true: “Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all.”

3 Responses to “Work Means Liberity!”
  1. C. Ryan Knight says:


    I was particularly interested by this paragraph: “’The values of work are still dominant in far too much of life,’ Kingwell writes, ‘indeed, these values have exercised their own kind of linguistic genius, creating a host of phrases, terms, and labels that bolster, rather than challenge, the dominance of work,'”(19).

    I’m interested in hearing more of your thoughts on the “linguistic genius”: its significance, its contours and boundaries, its limitations, etc.


    C. Ryan Knight

  2. morganfrances says:

    Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for the message. Although those are Kingwell’s words, I agree with his assessment. I think of work as being, for the most part, a neutral and universal word/concept. We might contest the various aspects and angles of it (e.g. minimum wage, social protections, etc) but unlike say class or race, everyone can relate to work in one form or another….and that makes it an ideological dream, particularly for capitalism.
    Language shapes individual and collective understanding, so when we talk about work culture, when we use phrases such as ‘happy hour,’ and then boast to our friends that we are passionate about our work as we drink our beer, we are relying on the ideologically charged language of capitalism, one that operates predominately through modern technology and advertising. The language of work then becomes this way of measuring our self worth, (i.e. how much we work and how much we love working) and again, these words, this language comes from the fact that capitalist society is based on competition, which goes back to the last quote I used of Russell’s, which is basically if people were more idle, if we operated/related to each other less through this language of work, perhaps we would be less persecuting, destructive, etc…

    This probably didn’t answer that..

    • C. Ryan Knight says:

      No, it does (or at least begins to, for who can adequately address so vast a subject?).

      You could even go a step further beyond your analysis of “language of capitalism” and “language of work.” The very fact that this language is best situated within, to use your example, happy hour, may very well indicate that these languages don’t just control one’s professional life, but instead one’s entire life. Even when someone isn’t working, the language of work controls the language of life itself. That we must affirm our work over beers with friends suggests that, in a sense, we haven’t left work, but our work remains to be done–in ourselves, over drinks, during happy hour.

      Hopefully that made sense. I had to write in haste.

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